Scores of rebels, hostages leave Syria's Douma under deal: state media

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Dozens of hostages released by rebels in Syria’s Douma arrived at Syrian army lines on Monday night, state media said, under a Russian-brokered deal for the fighters to surrender the besieged town.

Freed hostages and rebels who were evacuated from the rebel-held city of Douma are seen in a bus at Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria April 8, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Scores of rebel fighters and their families also quit the enclave, state TV said, with at least 25 buses shuttling them out through the Wafideen crossing. They would later go to insurgent territory in the north near the Turkish border, it said.

State news agency SANA said all the remaining hostages in Douma had left on two buses late on Monday.

The swap first got under way on Sunday, when around 75 hostages were set free. They were taken to a stadium in the capital Damascus, where hundreds of relatives have waited.

The deal grants safe passage to thousands of insurgents out of their battered enclave near Damascus. In return, the Jaish al-Islam faction is to release hostages and prisoners of war, some of whom it has held for years.

Russian military police will enter Douma to enforce the deal, opposition negotiators have said.

More than 50,000 people, including fighters and their families, are expected to leave Douma, a source involved the negotiations told Reuters earlier on Monday. The faction in Douma will release around 200 people held captive, the source said.

Damascus has shored up its rule over western Syria’s main cities through a series of offensives and similar local deals. In recent years, it has snuffed out most armed opposition pockets around the capital, with the help of Russian jets and Iranian-backed militias.

Monday’s evacuation follows a seven-week military offensive which seized most of the eastern Ghouta towns and villages at the capital’s edges. The onslaught of air and artillery killed hundreds of people in Ghouta, say rescuers, a monitoring group and the United Nations.

Douma had remained the last town in rebel hands, under the control of Jaish al-Islam, after two other factions accepted withdrawal on state-supplied buses to the north.

Medical aid groups said a suspected gas attack killed dozens in Douma at the weekend, and the rebels accused Damascus. The government has denied carrying out any such attack.

Reporting by Ellen Francis and Kinda Makieh; editing by Andrew Roche